Worshiping Idols in the Book of Judges

This blog post is an excerpt from the Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament

By breaking the seemingly innocuous command to “make no covenant with the inhabitants of this land” (Jgs 2:2; cf Ex 23:32), Israel began its downfall. Israel was to be His arm of justice against Canaanite peoples whose measure of wickedness was full and overflowing.

Fraternization and intermarriage with idolaters led to idolatry. The chain reaction of unbelief continued as Israel “abandoned the LORD, the God of their fathers . . . [and] went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them . . . and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Jgs 2:12–13) and “the gods of Syria, the gods of Sidon, the gods of Moab, the gods of the Ammonites, and the gods of the Philistines” (10:6). Baalism proved attractive to Israel particularly at this point in its history. When Israel’s nomadic way of life gave way to a sedentary agricultural economy, the fertility worship of Baal seemed to offer an abundance of crops, increase in flocks, and the birth of the next generation. Some Israelites even doubted whether the Deliverer from Egypt had divine jurisdiction in Canaan, or whether the land belonged to the local Baal, whose prerogative it was (as the Canaanites assured the Israelite newcomers) to grant the necessary grain and cattle.

The Beginnings of Worshiping Baal 

Indications are that Israel first rationalized a “small” accommodation to the First Commandment: they would continue to worship Yahweh but would do so through the forms of Baalism. But such syncretism denies in theory and practice the one and only God, who had already prescribed the forms of worship and who had already limited worship of Him to the place(s) He would designate. Accommodation to Baalism, a “peaceful coexistence” with it, seemed to grassroots Israel a practical way to assure a livelihood.

In addition, the sensual and sensuous ingredients of Baal worship were seductive and enticing compared to the austere and imageless rites required for Yahweh.

What began as a small accommodation ran amok. When the people rejected God, they also rejected loving their neighbors—and ultimately abused them. That progression may seem a long way down, but Judges teaches that it can be a tiny step. (Cf the men of the city of Ophrah who were willing to kill Gideon because he had destroyed his father’s altar to Baal; 6:25–30.)

Once Baalism had taken root, it was difficult to eradicate. Centuries later, the prophets still were condemning Israel for this idolatry (e.g., 1Ki 16:31; Jer 2:8). If only Israel had remembered the words of Moses: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Dt 6:4).

God’s Patience and Corrections

The Book of Judges is in many respects an illustration of God’s patience, especially with wayward and sinful people. God gave Israel a long time (about 300 years, the period of the judges) to live as a covenant nation without a national representative to preserve its unity. But lack of faith repeatedly dissolved the nation’s bond and resulted in confusion and defeat. Each time that happened, God called Israel back to orderly covenant living. He chose leaders from various tribes to correct the disorders that had arisen and to give the tribes an opportunity to make a fresh start. But neither severity nor kindness on the part of God succeeded. After such attempts, “the people of Israel [again] did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (Jgs 2:11 et al.). Sadly, Judges is the episodic recital of Israel’s failures to live as a divinely governed people.

We marvel at God’s patience. We tire of reading the recurring pattern of (1) gross infidelity, (2) repentance under chastisement, (3) relief from disaster under a deliverer (a “judge”), and (4) the inevitable relapse into the same evil. But every true formula and repetition of history must contain the monotonous, unimaginative, and unvarying perversity of the human heart—and the unending justice and mercy of God.

God’s Purpose for Israel

God had one purpose in creating Israel and giving Canaan as an inheritance. In His covenant with the patriarchs and with Israel at Mount Sinai, He had made it clear that Israel was to be a means to an end: to bring the blessings of salvation to all nations.

God had His own inscrutable reason for electing Israel as the chosen nation, but He reveals some of the reasons why He directed the course of Israel’s history at the time of the conquest as He did. He would, first of all, give Israel physical possession of the land in a way most advantageous to the conquerors: “The LORD your God will clear away these nations . . . little by little, . . . lest the wild beasts grow too numerous for you” (Dt 7:22; cf Ex 23:29–30).

This pattern of gradual conquest also committed Israel to learn to be true spiritual heirs of the land. During such a protracted period, they could conquer only by faith and in obedience to the covenant. Only as “a kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6) were they to displace the kings of Canaan.

The people had ample opportunity to learn this lesson. But after Joshua’s death Israel lacked the faith to be God’s covenant nation and thus did not dispossess the Canaanites. (Two of the few successful tribal leaders were Caleb, Joshua’s fellow spy into Canaan under Moses, and Othniel, Caleb’s nephew [Jgs 1:11–20].)

God did not deviate from His announced program for Israel. As long as the Canaanites remained, they served to test Israel “to know whether Israel would obey the commandments of the LORD, which He had commanded their fathers by the hand of Moses” (Jgs 3:4). This situation remained for a long time, as can be seen from the Book of Judges. Even a new generation, which “had not experienced all the wars in Canaan” (v 1), was not permitted to possess the land without learning to wage war as God’s people (i.e., to conquer by faith in Him and for His ends).

The Law of Moses

Like other Historical Books, Judges serves as a ready source of examples regarding the Ten Commandments. The angels mourned over our idolatry and disobedience (2:1–4). Gideon’s house was punished for breaking the First Commandment (8:27) by reintroducing idolatry, even though Gideon acted with good intentions. The oath to Jephthah shows that pledges of loyalty are accepted in some cases (11:10). Violations of the Sixth Commandment led to personal and community disasters (chs 19–22). 

Blog post adapted from Lutheran Bible Companion, Volume 1: Introduction and Old Testament, copyright © 2014 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

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